Red-Light District in a Convent Garden

Covent Garden - Mike Shevdon in the Apple Market courtesy of Mark Lewis photography

One of the main locations in SIxty-One Nails is Covent Garden Market.

Blackbird brings Niall here after they first meet to purchase a token gift before they descend beneath the streets into the hidden world of Gramawl and Kareesh. When they emerge into the plaza, she turns to him….

“Oh, I’ve missed this. It’s one of the old places.”
Blackbird’s mood lightened as she crossed onto the cobble stoned plaza.
I corrected her. “It’s not as old as people think, actually. The flower market is only late nineteenth century.”
“And why do you think they built a flower market here?”
“Well, I guess it was part of the original settlement. Maybe there were market gardens here once?”
“Oh, there were gardens here, convent gardens actually, and there was a market here long before Christianity and for much more than flowers. Herbs and potions, talismans and wardings, you could buy anything here, once.” She stepped up onto the paving around the covered market and breathed in as if inhaling a heady scent.
“Blackbird, if you don’t mind me asking, how old are you, exactly?”
“Didn’t I tell you it was rude to ask someone’s age?” She arched an eyebrow at me, but I was prepared for her evasion this time.
“No, I don’t think that’s actually what you said. I think you asked me what age I thought you were and then, when I told you, you laughed and said you were a lot older than that, but you never told me how much.”
“Perhaps I thought you were being nosey.” The comment was not harshly made and left just enough of an opening for me to ask once more.
“Are you going to tell me?”
“No, I don’t think so, except to say I have rolled in the buttercups here and come away dusted in their pollen. I have slept here under the stars on the solstice and been gifted with dreams of the future and I have fought for my life here and come away bloodied, but unharmed. It is a place that has been special to me for a long time.” Her words hung in the air despite the milling tourists that passed us by, unaware of her reminiscences.
“Buttercups, huh?” I mused.
“Trust you to latch on to that.”

It’s true that Covent Garden is much older than people generally realise. The 4th Earl of Bedford, Francis Russell commissioned Inigo Jones to redesign the square in the 17th century, giving it the delightful open plaza in front of St Paul’s church that you see today. The market itself, though, predates that considerably.

Situated between St Martin’s Lane, leading down to St Martin’s in the Fields, and Drury Lane at a time when the lanes were actually country lanes and the white spire of St Martins was surrounded by fields, it was bounded at the north by Floral Street and to the south by what is now Chandos Street. The land was part of a 40 acre allocation granted by King John late in the 12th century to St. Peter’s Abbey Westminster, to provide food for the monks. The surplus produce was often sold and therefore the market came into being.

Before that, it was part of Roman London, and before that, it belonged to the Saxon settlement of Aldwych (from the Middle English meaning ‘Old Town’) just to the south.

For centuries Covent Garden was the main fruit, vegetable and flower market for London, though it also had other trade. In the 18th century it was a notorious red-light district, leading to the term flower-girl being used as a euphemism for a prostitute. There was even Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies detailing their addresses and specialties. It may be that George Bernard Shaw knew this when in Pygmalion he called his Covent Garden flower-girl, Eliza Doolittle, though perhaps that’s just speculation on my part.

Now the area is a famous tourist destination, and you can buy all manner of gifts and presents, which is why Blackbird brings Niall here to purchase some semi-precious stones as a gift, though to find out why he needs a gift and who it’s for, I’m afraid you’re going to have to read the book.

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